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   2 June, 2002 | 1020 IST



France get the blues

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Argentina kick off 'group of death'

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Favourites Argentina take on the African challenge in the shape of Nigeria, and England, with David Beckham back from injury, play Sweden as the "group of death" kicks off on day three of the World Cup on Sunday.

Twice winners Argentina carry an added burden into their opening group F match in the Japanese town of Ibaraki -- the expectations of a battered nation seeking some relief from an unrelenting economic crisis.

The South American aristocrats, newly installed as favourites after debutants Senegal upset champions France 1-0 in the opening match of the competition, bring class, experience and pedigree to the tournament.

Gabriel Batistuta, his powers undimmed at the age of 33, leads the attack against an inconsistent Nigeria side, who have seen Senegal's electrifying win and still have the potential to spring another African surprise.

Ireland, without captain Roy Keane after a training pitch dispute with their manager, slowed the African challenge when they held African and Olympic champions Cameroon to a 1-1 draw.

England and their Swedish manager Sven-Goran Eriksson are banking on the strike power of European Footballer of the Year Michael Owen in Saitama against a Swedish side with a reputation for defending deep and getting back quickly in numbers.

England have not beaten the Swedes since 1968 but the Scandinavians could be missing two of their best players, Patrik Andersson and Fredrik Ljungberg, though injury.

In Sunday's other two matches, both in group B, Paraguay meet South Africa and Spain, looking for their first opening match win since 1950, play Slovenia.

British police, working with co-hosts Japan and South Korea, are confident that they have nipped the hooligan scourge in the bud by preventing mischief-makers reaching Japan.

England fans, out on the town and determined to have a good time, mingled with Swedish fans on the eve of the match and played down talk of trouble at the game.

Ordinary Japanese, regaled with stories of fan mayhem from the other side of the world, held their breath.


England, with captain Beckham playing his first match for nearly two months after breaking a bone in his left foot, will also be looking for a winning start after watching a rejuvenated Germany thrash a bewildered Saudi Arabia 8-0 -- the highest total at the tournament in 20 years.

That win, bristling with passion and determination, was a timely confidence boost for the three-time winners following some dismal performances in qualifying, particularly a 5-1 defeat by England nine months ago.

"That was just what we needed to do and we did it well," goalkeeper and captain Oliver Kahn said afterwards. "It has boosted our confidence and it has also given all our rivals something to think about. It is good for us psychologically."

Argentina's Batistuta won the battle for the striker's spot ahead of Hernan Crespo, despite the latter's nine goals during the South American qualifying tournament.

Coach Marco Bielsa said he had weighed up the form of both men and decided to go with the man who has scored a record 55 goals in 75 internationals for his country.

"This was not a last minute decision, nor was it traumatic," Bielsa said. "It was absolutely normal."

Bielsa has also opted for Claudio Lopez on the left flank in a team with a wealth of attacking talent and a ruthless defence. Argentina scored in each match of their gruelling qualifying

Nigeria have a rare talent to self-destruct but the force may be with Africa after Senegal's heroics on Friday.

Paraguay, who recorded a famous win over Brazil in the qualifying campaign, will be without their eccentric 36-year-old goalkeeper and free kick specialist Jose Luis Chilavert, who is suspended from the opening match after spitting at an opponent.

Like South Africa they have a new coach in former Italy boss Cesare Maldini who has replaced Uruguayan Sergio Markarian.

South Africa, who disappointed four years ago in France, replaced Carlos Queiroz this year with Jomo Sono after a poor run at the African Nations Cup.

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